Monday, March 30, 2015

Bookstores, Book Orders, and Knowing Your Marketplace

I live in the suburbs around the Twin Cities area. My experiences tell me it’s not that different here from what one would find surrounding any other decent-sized city, which is to say a largely generic commercescape with occasional hidden pockets of culture. And sadly in this kind of environment, bookstores can be hard to come by. Which isn’t to say we don’t have any. Barnes and Noble, Half Price Books, the rare funky indie store...we’re covered. As far as the world of children’s literature goes, we’re lucky to have some extraordinary bookstores in our Cities (Shout out to The Red Balloon and The Wild Rumpus!).

I love browsing and discovering in bookstores. Back before the Borders location that was only half a mile (!!!) from my house was closed, I was there so frequently and for such long stretches of time there was talk amongst the employees about charging me rent. But unfortunately there aren’t as many bookstores as there used to be, and the ones that have survived have downsized the number of children’s titles along with everything else. When I think of my students, I’m sure that the closest thing many of them have had to a bookstore experience is walking down the one or two aisles of our local Target store representing the publishing world. Because of this, and since at nine years old they aren’t exactly ready to do any heavy-duty Internet shopping, one of the only ways many them have to get their hands on a book they can call their own is through school book orders.

Book orders are great. I clearly remember when my elementary teachers gave them to us, and how approximately two weeks later our new books would magically appear on our desks, waiting in neat piles when we arrived in the morning or came inside after recess. I love sharing that same excitement with my students now when I pass out the orders. My favorites are the ones turned in with the invoice roughly torn away from the form, marked off in crayon or with a barely-sharpened pencil, and stuffed into a plastic bag with a handful of coins and maybe a couple of crumbled bills. You know when you see those orders the kids are spending their own money on books they really want.

So what DO the kids today really want? What can be learned about publishing trends from perusing a monthly order form as a random sample? Just like any business, a book club is going to push the products they know their customers will buy. Here’s a category breakdown I did of the last book order I sent home with my students, just weeks ago, because it’s testing season in the world of elementary school right now and apparently I can’t stop myself from viewing things through a data-filtered lens. As of March 2015, here’s what’s being pushed based on how frequently these categories were represented:

Non-fiction books, mostly about science, animals, or history: 15
Books that are a part of a series: 12
Things that aren’t books at all, such as spy cameras, hair chalk, or invisible ink pens: 10
Movie or television tie-ins: 7
Animal characters: 5
Contemporary fiction: 5
Toy tie-ins: 5
Video game tie-ins: 5
Classic novels: 3
Illustrated novels: 3
Packaged series collections: 3
Diaries: 2
How-to-draw books: 2
Games or puzzles: 2
Sports: 2
Superheroes: 2
Fantasy: 1
Poetry: 1

I wasn’t surprised by these numbers. High-interest non-fiction has always been a reliable gateway for reluctant readers, and buying an entire series like Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson, either all at once in a collector’s package or a few books at a time isn’t so far removed from binge-watching several seasons of a television show. As a teacher I can’t say I’m thrilled by the number of “not book” items in the order, but I totally get that business is business.

For a long time I’ve entertained the fantasy of seeing a book I wrote show up in one of the book orders I'll pass out to my students in the future. Maybe the best way to make this happen would be to write a non-fiction series featuring recurring animal characters that are somehow tied to a popular TV show, then package each book with origami paper, hand buzzers, glow-in-the-dark stickers, or novelty erasers. Hmm...I think I may have just stumbled onto my next project....

Friday, March 27, 2015

You Don’t Have To Be a Guy To Make People Laugh

On Wednesday, children’s book author Cheryl Blackford published a post to her blog about the recent Tucson Festival of Books.  It wasn’t about her experience at the festival, though, but rather about a panel on humor in children’s books. More specifically, it questioned why the panel in question was composed entirely of five white men.

I mean, while I suppose it’s possible that the only funny kidlit writers in Tucson that weekend were dudes, I’d put the likelihood of it up there with the odds that I’m going to be featured in one of this week’s NCCA Basketball Tournament games.

After going on to relate how she questioned the panel regarding the gender imbalance evidenced by their quintet of Adam’s apples, near the end of the post she writes,

Does this matter? you might ask. Yet more carping from a woman on the topic of gender discrimination, you could say, rolling your eyes.

She follows that with a brief argument of why, yes, for the love of the all the cherry-flavored Skittles, pointing it out and examining it, matters. It matters because the only way to someday conquer biases such as this one is to bring it up when everyone else would rather not talk about it.

In doing so, hopefully we can work together to overcome it.

So, of course it matters. It matters to all of us.

Then again, you might be wondering why I’d be bringing this up, of all people. I’m a middle-aged homo sapiens of European descent with man bits who is trying to get his MG books published and make a mark on children’s literature. Heck, I even write books that are intended to be funny. A bias towards guys like me when it comes to deciding who is or isn’t likely to open up a can of belly laughs can only be to my benefit, right?


Except, no, not really. Because believe it or not, it matters a lot to even me that we to work to overcome these biases. Especially the idea that dudes are funnier dudettes.

But, why, you ask?

Well, for one thing, because I believe that few things make a children’s book more enticing to a young reader than a healthy dollop of laughs. Now, clearly, not every MG book needs to be a madcap side-splitter filled with clowns and fart jokes. But I firmly believe (and I’ve seen a ski slope’s worth of anecdotal evidence of this among my four youngsters) that kids will more consistently read and talk about books that make them laugh. And there are plenty of great books out there by women that don’t just deserve to be read, they need to be. Because kids reading great books triggers a positive feedback loop. Once they find one, they’ll go looking for another, and then another, and another. Again and again.

And if you ask me, that seems like a pretty effective way to increase literacy in kids. In turn, that can go a long way toward curing many of society’s ills, one giggling reader at a time.

Another reason why giving equal consideration to the comedic lady folk matters to me is that some of my best writer friends are not only brilliant, but also brilliantly funny, while also being female. In fact, my agent has put together quite a client list of women who make me laugh, both in their work and in regular old, everyday conversation. In fact, if a day goes by that without a literal – by which I mean actually, really, literal— LOL at Julie Falatko* or Dev Petty**, I start to get twitchy, like maybe I’m missing out on something somewhere.

Speaking of which, if you like to laugh, you should probably follow both of them on twitter.

Finally, the most important reason that issues like this matter to me – even if it might seem like I’d be better off keeping my rambling trap shut – is much more personal than professional.  I have a daughter who, at nine years old, has already finished writing more complete stories than I did before the age of thirty. She might keep at it and become a professional writer someday.  Then again, she might not.  But whatever she chooses, I want her to grow into a world where girls aren’t automatically written off when it comes to deciding who might be the funny ones, or the smart ones, or the ones best at applying the Pythagorean Theorem.

The long and short of it is, it matters to me because I want her to have all the same advantages I have now as a middle-aged white dude. I want the playing field to be level, for her and everyone she knows, regardless of race, creed, gender, orientation, or galaxy of origin. And as far as I can see, the only way that will ever happen is by doing exactly what Cheryl Black recommends.  We all need to be seeing the biases, asking the awkward questions, and raising the issues until there aren’t any more left.

Before I step off my soapbox, I thought this might be a great place to leave suggestions for the Tucson Festival of Books, or for anyone else who needs help finding a children’s book or two by awesomely funny ladies who know their way around the funny bone. If you’ve got a recommendation, drop it into the comments below.  Here, I’ll even go first: Heidi Schulz’s Hook’s Revenge is not only a terrific adventure story with a plucky leading lady, it had me laughing out loud while 40,000 feet over Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. 

Much to the chagrin of the guy in seat 14B, I might add. But then I read him a few pages, and he got over it.

So, what do you have in mind? It’s your turn, let’s see what you’ve got!


*Julie’s debut, Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) is due in early 2016. You should keep an eye out for it.
**Dev’s debut, I Don’t Want To Be A Frog is out now.  But you’ve already read it, obviously. If not…why not? It’s delightfully subversive, and hilarious.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Guest Blog Author Kevin Springer: Top 10 Things About Sam

Today we have a guest post from Kevin Springer author of recently released Extraordinary Sam and the Adventurers' of Guild. Here's a little bit more about the book...

“This box may seem empty,

But there’s more than meets the eye…”

Sam Miller seems like an ordinary 12-year-old boy, until he discovers a mysterious box. Suddenly, he lands in a magical world in which he must battle deadly pirates, savage warriors, giant man-eating spiders, and a fire-wielding tyrant. To survive, Sam must overcome his fears, solve riddles, and most of all, be extraordinary.*

So without further ado, I turn you over to Kevin!
I was given the fun task of providing the Top 10 Facts about Sam and I viewed this as part introduction to the character/story, part behind the curtain, and part teaser. So, without further ado, here are the Top 10 Facts about Extraordinary Sam:

10. The book began as a simple bedtime story I made up for my then four year old son. It was about a boy who would go on adventures based on the hat he pulled out of a magical hatbox. After a couple weeks, the stories were replaced by others and were forgotten by me, but not him. Almost two years later, he asked for another hatbox story and I had to give life to this character.

9. The original plotting for the book was for a picture book. After a week of writing, I realized I couldn't tell the whole story in 32 pages. I had too many "ooh, what about this" moments to limit his adventure. I feel in the end, I gave Sam the proper start to his adventure.

8. Sam is based very loosely on my childhood. I grew up on a farm in Maryland and relied on my imagination to create my own adventures. The other characters are a mixture of several people or what I felt would best serve the story, so know that my parents didn't wear matching turtlenecks and sweater vests. :)

7. Sam's adventure has just begun. I have plotted out four books and there is a small reference to this near the start of the first book. More will be revealed about this in the second book.

6. When I try and describe the story, I tend to talk about what happens, but I truly feel it is about more. The action and adventure do drive the story, but underneath is a story about a growth and self-realization.

5. In the story, Sam is transported to a different world, the Realm of Ashling. Naming a world proved to be harder than I thought, so I spent hours researching the meaning of names. When nothing stood out as "the name," I turned to Google Translate. There are a few words that play a key role in the story, so I wrote them down. One stood out over the others - dream. After researching translation of the word, I came across the Irish Gaelic word "aisling" (pronounced ash-ling). So, the realm of dreams was born.

4. Extraordinary Sam was almost never written. I hit a block in the story when Sam faces his first obstacle. I decided to put the manuscript away for a few days and start again with a fresh perspective. Fast forward eleven months and a friend I haven't seen in a long time asked me how the story was going and I realized I needed to dust it off and get back to work.

3. The start of book goes against everything I have heard from agents and editors and I didn't care!! Q&A panels, blog entries, rejection letters, and webinars all agreed - don't start a story with a dream. Well mine really needed to and luckily my publisher agreed. Sam dreams of adventure and not being ordinary. I wanted to introduce him to the reader in the way he wished he could be - the hero. This changes quickly and we then see the truth. This was the way it needed to be when I looked at the full path of the story.

2. When it comes to the other characters, there are a few surprises in store. A couple are revealed at the end of book one, but those aren't the good ones. Each book will give you more information about some characters' backstories and some will just surprise you.

1. Sam's story will be wrapped up at the end of the fourth book, but Ashling may need another Adventurer in the future. Another hero will need to step up. After reading book one, you may be able to figure it out. I thought about giving a hint, but where's the fin in that.

I hope you enjoy reading Extraordinary Sam & the Adventurers' Guild. I look forward to sharing book two soon.

Thanks again for having me.

Kevin A. Springer grew up on a farm in Maryland where his imagination knew no limits. As a husband and father, he reconnected with his creativity while telling bedtime stories to his two young boys. One such story evolved into his debut book, Extraordinary Sam & the Adventurers’ Guild (March 2015, Bookfish Books LLC.), which tells the tale of an ordinary boy who finds a hatbox and discovers a world of adventure and self-discovery.

Kevin is a self-proclaimed dreamer and a kid at heart. When he’s not writing or reading, he is coaching soccer or helping with homework. He lives outside of Atlanta with his wife, two extraordinary boys, and dogs. He is also a co-founder of the Middle Grade Mafia blog. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

*Synopsis taken from

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Kids Read #3

Today we have another awesome interview for What Kids Read! Enjoy!

1.) What grades/age groups do you work with?
I work with grades K-2 - middle grade readers of the future!

2.) What are some of your favorite kid lit books?

I could make a very, very, VERY long list, but I'll try to keep it (somewhat) short! Some of my recent favorites are:
THE RED PENCIL by Andrea Davis Pinkney
TELL ME by Joan Bauer
RAIN REIGN by Ann Martin
SPIRIT'S KEY by Edith Cohn

3.) What genres/topics do kids seem to ask for the most?
I love working with kids in this age group because they're so open to everything. If I tell them something is a good book, they trust me completely and try it. It's interesting to see what types of books are popular from school to school, though. It really varies based on a lot of different factors. For instance, at one school I worked at, the kids were really into all types of sports books - nonfiction, the Victory Sports Superstars series (Capstone), and anything by Tim Green/Matt Christopher. At my current school, though, the kids don't really care about sports. They love Pokemon (yes, it's still a thing!! I was surprised, too), dragons, superheroes, and Magic Tree House. The common thread I've seen at all schools? Graphic novels. Babymouse, Lunch Lady, Amulet. Can't keep them on the shelves.

4.) What book titles are the most popular right now? 
Anything by Mo Willems, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, Scaredy Squirrel, the Dragonbreath series (Ursula Vernon)

5.) What do kids seem to like the least or what do kids complain about when it comes to books?

I think kids get stressed out when they can't find something that appeals to them - but since they're kids, it can be hard for them to express this. I have one student who always tells me "there aren't any good books here." (Which, y'know, of COURSE there are - like 15,000 of them!) I reassure her that she just hasn't found the right book yet, and that's okay, and we're going to work together to find it. I think kids generally want to read, but if they can't find that perfect book/series they love, and/or if they don't have anyone to help them do it (one of MANY reasons school librarians are so necessary), they can become discouraged and bitter about reading. In terms of what they complain about with books they don't like, it's usually that the book isn't funny or action-packed enough.

6.) What gets kids excited about reading? 
Their friends. They love my recommendations, but a second grader telling another second grader that they MUST read a certain book carries a lot more weight than me telling them. It's really amazing, watching the domino effect happen so often. Literally ONE second grader got into Amulet, then he told his friend, and soon the entire class was reading the entire series. I think the exact same thing probably happens with older students, too.

7.) If you've had author visits at your library/classroom what worked well and what didn't?
I've had a few Skype author visits and a few in person at my last school. They've all generally gone really well! It's great that a lot of children's authors are able to relate to children so well. (Which you'd think would be a given, but being a good children's writer doesn't necessarily translate to being an engaging speaker.) It works well when there's a presentation in place, when the event is promoted/organized well, and when there's collaboration and mutual respect between the author and the librarian/whomever is coordinating the event.

8.) Are there any other thoughts about children's literature or reading you'd like to share?
Books are the best.

Thanks to Abby Cooper for the interview! She lives in Madison, Wisconsin and works at a K-2 school. She also writes middle grade. Check her out on twitter!

If you are a librarian, teacher, or educator and would like to be interviewed on the blog please email MGminded (at) gmail (dot) com and put "What Kids Read" in the subject line. And if you have questions about what kids read that you'd like answered send them to the same email address.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Deadlines & Day Jobs

“Think ahead. Don’t let day-to-day operations drive out planning.”
- Donald Rumsfeld

There was a time in my life when I made lists and then did the things on them. I would write and rewrite lists by category: home, kids, work, school, writing, etc. And then, I would systematically tackle them. I would even add things to my list that I’d done that weren’t on the list just so I could put a line through them. I’m a little controlling, a little OCD (maybe a lot…), and no one appreciates the value of a minute more than me.

That was before school started this year.

My day job is teaching sophomore and junior English. I have around 180 students (roughly 30 per class). What was different this year? We implemented iPads in a 1:1 initiative. I love technology, but this has been nothing short of nightmare of Psycho-proportions. The time it takes to plan, grade, and implement technology has doubled. At least. The result has been the evaporation of my writing time. I’ve been sitting on a deadline to write a partial since January 15th. It was due March 1st. I wrote it Saturday and edited it Sunday. As in February 27th and 28th. I spend entire days at Starbucks writing with intermittent bouts of self-flagellation for procrastinating. Let’s not mention all the groceries not being bought, the meals not getting cooked, the family and dogs being ignored, and the meetings missed.

Why? Why would I wait this long to write a story I adore that editors are actually waiting to read. How could anything be more important than that? 

The why is pretty simple and can probably be echoed by every writer out there with a day job:
  • Add kids (I have one in college, one in middle school, and one in high school), and
  • a side job (I sell nutritional products), and
  • graduate school (I’m working on my M.Ed. in Secondary Education), and
  • an overextension of writing-related commitments (Can you sign books? Yes! Visit our book club? Absolutely! Teach a writing workshop? Out town? For free? Well, of course!)…. 

Well, you get the point. There isn’t enough time to accomplish everything. I spend an exorbitant amount of money on planners (online and on paper) and organizational strategies involving spirals, composition books, Wunderlist (which is awesome, but I’m too visual to do it all on an app), and sticky notes – all  with varying degrees of success and for limited amounts of time.

Here’s what I works for me (today, at this exact second in time):
  • I use an Erin Condren planner to keep up with meetings, due dates, etc. – it’s functional and pretty and you can buy interchangeable covers (which works well with my Gemini spirit). Learn from my mistake: the key to being successful with this planner is to actually take the planner out of your bag and OPEN IT.
  • I keep a spiral as a running to-do list. There are pages and pages and it can be completely overwhelming, but I go through the list and then I…
  • Make a list for each day.

I also email myself reminders. Constantly. Right now, I have 43 emails in my inbox and half of them are from me as reminders. By the way… I have this thing about going to sleep each night with empty inboxes (file it, put it on the list, do it, or print it). So the 20+ emails from myself are from last night.

I don’t think this really qualifies as a system… there has to be a better way! Please, please, please… share your system for staying organized; maybe some it will stick with others on the blog AND ME!